Will Syria's fires singe Lebanon?

Deadly sectarian clashes near the Syrian border in northern Lebanon have sparked concern that Syria's turmoil is spilling over to its neighbor.

By , Correspondent

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    A Lebanese man, background, clears debris on June 18, after clashes between Sunnis and Alawites on June 17, after a demonstration by the anti-Syrian regime protesters in Tripoli, Lebanon.
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A recent bout of deadly sectarian clashes in this northern Lebanese city has stirred fears that the turmoil of Syria's uprising is beginning to spill over the border into Lebanon.

Lebanon long has lived under the shadow of its powerful Syrian neighbor and many Lebanese say that it will be hard for this tiny Mediterranean country to escape unsinged as Syria burns.

“We are going to have a few security problems in the future based on the behavior of Damascus of the last few days and weeks,” says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon’s As Safir daily newspaper. “We are heading toward some trouble in the south [along the border with Israel] and more trouble in Tripoli and maybe some small bombings of the kind we have grown used to in the past.”

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Since Syrian opposition protesters took to the streets in mid-March, Lebanon has suffered a spate of security incidents. Most recently, six were killed in June 17 clashes between Tripoli's Sunnis and Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam which also forms the backbone of the Syrian regime.

In addition, the mysterious abduction of seven Estonians on a cycling holiday through Syria and Lebanon, as well as a roadside bomb attack against United Nations peacekeepers (the first in more than three years), have sparked speculation that Syria may be using some of its allies in Lebanon to stir up trouble. Such allegations remain unconfirmed – the perpetrators and motives of both acts are still unknown. But the speculation indicates the level of unease and suspicion here.

But while the security breaches have helped create a climate of uncertainty and more are expected in the short term, some Lebanese analysts are confident that Syria's unrest will not be detrimental in the long term.

“The Syrian regime is 48 years old and Lebanon is 150 years old and therefore definitely much more immune, more resilient, and able to survive,” says Ousama Safa, a Beirut-based political analyst.

'The Sunnis want a war'

The most consistent and volatile flash point in Lebanon is probably the front line between Tripoli's Sunni-populated Bab Tebbaneh district and the hilltop Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, marked by a string of ragged bullet-pocked and abandoned buildings.

Over the past six years, there have been several bouts of fighting here as Lebanon lurched from one political crisis to another. Last Friday’s clashes between Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tebbaneh, as well as the adjacent Sunni district Qobbe, offer a portent of more trouble to come.

Who started the clashes depends on whom you ask. Alawites insist that the Sunnis shot first, while the Sunnis say that the Alawites opened fire on a demonstration held to support the Syrian opposition movement.

“[The Sunnis] want a war and they are preparing for it,” says Rifaat Eid, the portly and convivial leader of Lebanon’s Alawite community, which is close to Syria's regime. His shelves are filled with photographs of Syria's leaders as well as Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the powerful head of the Syria-backed Hezbollah movement.

Mr. Eid accuses leading Sunni politicians and clerics in Tripoli of fomenting anti-Alawite sentiment and distributing weapons to be used in street battles. He said that the Sunnis have been provoking the Alawites for months by firing occasional rocket-propelled grenades into Jabal Mohsen.

“If I had wanted to retaliate to what they have been doing, we would have had a war four months ago,” says Eid.

Days after the clashes, few people are on the streets other than Lebanese soldiers, underlining worries that fighting could quickly resume. A mosque with fire-blackened walls and the sides of white-washed apartment blocks riddled with fresh bullet holes testified to the intensity of the fighting, however.

“It’s not over yet. There is fire beneath the ashes,” says Yussef Nasri, a Sunni resident of Qobbe. “This situation will only be resolved when the Syrian regime collapses and all weapons in Lebanon are removed from private hands and from Hezbollah’s hands.”

Why Syria intervened to help form Lebanese government

The outbreak of deadly violence in Tripoli overshadowed a key victory for Lebanon that came just days earlier: the formation of a new government after five months of intense bickering.

The breakthrough came, according to analysts, when Syria realized that it was losing the sympathy of even its close regional allies, namely Qatar and Turkey. In response, the Syrian leadership stepped in to ensure that Lebanon's new government, at least, would be a friendly neighbor.

The new government is headed by Najib Mikati, a Sunni billionaire businessman from Tripoli, who is seen as a political moderate. He presides over a mix of apolitical technocrats and politicians affiliated with the Syria-backed March 8 parliamentary coalition. But the Western- and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc, which was ousted from power in January, says it will mount a robust opposition to the Mikati cabinet.

Vitriol in Lebanon mirrors Syria's rising confrontation

The political vitriol already has increased since the government was formed, mirroring the intensifying confrontation between the Syrian regime and the opposition protest movement. Mouein Merhebi, a Sunni lawmaker from the northern Akkar district, recently accused Hezbollah of deploying 130mm artillery guns in the rugged and remote hills south west of Shiite-populated Hermel in the northern Bekaa Valley.

“Hezbollah says it is a resistance against Israel. But Israel is far to the south out of range of these guns, so why do they have them there?” he asks, indicating that they could be used against the adjacent Sunni areas of Dinnieh and Akkar to the west of Hermel.

Hezbollah dismissed the claim as “fabricated and ridiculous.”

Take a drive along the remote trails winding through the ochre-hued hills of Hermel studded with dark green juniper trees and no artillery guns are to be seen. If they exist, they are well hidden. But like all politically charged accusations and counter-claims in Lebanon, truth lies in the eye of the beholder.

“Of course they have artillery in the hills over there. It’s well known,” says a Sunni farmer indicating the nearby mountain ridge that separates the Sunni district of Dinnieh from the Shiite area of Hermel. But he admits he has never seen the guns.

On the Shiite-populated side of the ridge, local farmers dismiss the claims and accuse Mr. Merhebi, the lawmaker, of stirring sectarian tensions.

Meanwhile, Eid, the Alawite leader, speaking in his bunker-like office in Jabal Mohsen, says that his community – along with the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus – will fight “to the last drop of blood.”

“This is Lebanon. Without fighting, Lebanon is not a nice place,” he says with a chuckle. “Welcome to Lebanon.”

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